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Loss, memories and no strawberries on Memorial Day

Gay Fred Eisenhauer's sWyatt was killed May 2005. In October thyear (above) they met with state Army officials help improve

Gay and Fred Eisenhauer's son, Wyatt, was killed in May 2005. In October of that year (above), they met with state and Army officials to help improve casualty protocol in Illinois. | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times photo

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Updated: June 27, 2014 6:10AM

Strawberries are ready for picking in mid-May in Southern Illinois. So when a U.S. Army car pulled up to the small gray house in downstate Pinckneyville almost exactly nine years ago, Gay and Fred Eisenhauer had dozens of people in their strawberry patch: workers filling orders and drivers who stopped to pick their own at 45 cents a pound.

The two soldiers walked to the front door, where they were met by great-niece Raygan, 6, who told them that Aunt Gay had said that anybody trying to come in the front door should be told to go around to the side. The worry: muddy boots.

So the pair went to the side door and knocked again.

“When I seen who they were,” Gay Eisenhauer remembers, “I said, ‘Raygan, go get Uncle Fred at the strawberry shed.’ ”

Together, they heard the worst news that a parent can hear.

“Are you father of Cavalry Scout Wyatt D. Eisenhauer?” Fred was asked when he arrived. He said he was. “We are sorry to inform you that on May 19 . . .”

Their 26-year-old son, a private first class who hadn’t been in the Army a year, had been driving a Humvee in Iraq when the vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The two soldiers with Wyatt would remember only a flash and then waking up in a hospital in Germany. Wyatt didn’t make it.

How does a mother react to such news?

“In all honesty, it felt like an out-of-body experience,” Gay Eisenhauer says. “I was just floating up over everyone looking down. It wasn’t real.”

Gay’s next thought was of Wyatt’s older sister.

“I called my son-in-law at work and told him, ‘You have to tell Rebecca. You have to go to her.’ ”

Rebecca Anderson lives a mile from her parents, across corn fields and a dirt road. She had just been picking at the strawberry patch but had gone home.

Her husband walked in, looking sick, pale.

“What are you doing home in the middle of the day?” she asked him. “Did you get fired? What happened?”

“Wyatt’s dead,” he said.

Rebecca Anderson started screaming at her husband “It’s nothing to joke about!” she cried, hitting him. “It’s nothing to joke about!”

Wyatt D. Eisenhauer was one of 3,527 American servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war, one of the approximately 840,000 Americans who have died fighting for this country since the Revolutionary War.

On Memorial Day, we are supposed to remember their enormous sacrifice and the loss felt by their loved ones, although it’s impossible to give those numbers any kind of meaning, since it’s hard to do justice to even one.

“He was very inquisitive,” says his mother. “He wanted to know how things worked and why they worked. He would take it apart, try to put it back together . . .”

“He was kind of like a genius when it came to mechanical things,” agrees Anderson. “He would build dune buggies, go-karts.”

Wyatt studied at Southern Illinois University. After school he started work. But his life didn’t feel complete. His father, grandfathers, great-uncles had all served.

“He talked about it for several years,” Anderson says. “He just felt that he could give back. It would be an opportunity for him to do more, to do something really worthwhile.”

His sister was reluctant to see him enlist.

“I was in support of him, but the selfish part of me, no, I didn’t want him to go. I was going to miss him,” she says. “My brother and I were really, really close growing up, being in a rural area, most afternoons and evenings and summers we were always together. He was my friend and playmate, growing up.

“Family was really important to him,” she continues. “He wanted to be married, always laughed and said, ‘The reason I haven’t got married yet is I want to find a woman (who will) give me 12 kids. I’ll have a whole crew of them.’”

There was a girlfriend.

“He really cared for the girl,” says Anderson. “Probably would have proposed marriage with her. I often wonder about that, think about what my nieces and nephews would be like.”

Wyatt Eisenhauer was buried on Memorial Day 2005.

“Memorial Day carries a little extra punch for us,” his mother says. A friend from high school played taps.

Over the years, the family has thrown itself into work with organizations helping families cope with the loss of soldiers and helping vets when they return.

“I think that we can become desensitized,” Anderson says. “When you think of the troops, it’s almost like they’re not real, these people. For me, it was so important he didn’t become a statistic, he didn’t become a number. It’s become a passion of mine to help all of our fallen to be remembered. To talk about loved ones. They each had goals, each had lives to live, loved ones who thought about them, personalities that were unique.”

Not everyone gets this.

“Even some of your close friends misunderstand,” his mother says. “Everyone tells you you’ve got to get over it, you’ve got to move on. The thing is . . . you don’t get over it. That hole, you have lost a piece of your heart and nothing is going to fill that. Only Wyatt had that part of your heart . . .
I don’t understand when people say, ‘You need to move on.’ My question is: ‘Tell me where to move to and I’ll go there.’ ”

When you talk to his family, it’s easy to focus on that hole — the nieces and nephews who’ll never be, the engines that will go unrepaired. His family wants to talk about his life, and does. But the loss has a way of creeping back. The strawberry patch, for instance. You can’t pick strawberries there anymore.

“We haven’t done it since he was killed,” Gay Eisenhauer says. “We just didn’t have it in us.”


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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